What does Oscar Pistorius’s success at the Olympics mean for the future of cybernetics?

For the first time ever in Olympic history, a double-amputee is set to race alongside able-bodied athletes. Nicknamed "Blade Runner," South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius's remarkable achievement is set to raise as much enthusiasm as it will concern.

As we recently reported, it's very possible that Pistorius's advanced prosthetic "Cheetahs" give him a distinct advantage. This has led some to speculate that we're not too far off from the day when perfectly functioning athletes and the general public will want to enhance themselves in this way — what's being dubbed "elective amputation." But just how real is this possibility?

What does Oscar Pistorius’s success at the Olympics mean for the future of cybernetics?

The idea of voluntarily removing a limb in favor of an artificial one is not entirely new — but it does signify a potential trend when considering just how sophisticated assistive devices are becoming. Last year we told you the stories of Patrick and Milo, who after suffering serious injuries, both opted to have their hands removed, and in their place, be given artificial ones.

But as futurist Nikki Olson recently pointed out, the idea of elective amputation may not be limited to people dealing with severe injuries. Writing in the IEET, Olson speculates that the era of voluntary cyborgization could be as little as ten years away — a prospect that will lead to an entire host of ethical conundrums. Olson writes:

That an amputee could be considered "enhanced", even within a narrow domain, is a relatively novel phenomenon, and represents a notable milestone in amputation technology. Thinking broadly and more long-term, some have pointed out that the milestone Pistorius represents is only the first of many yet to come in terms of amputees out-performing non-amputees, whether in circumstances with well defined parameters and restrictions, such as the Olympics, or in everyday human tasks. It's only a matter of time, some have suggested, before amputation technology can provide amputees with limbs so similar or superior in function to real ones, that it becomes routine for amputees to out-perform non-amputees in a number of complex and diverse tasks, including those that require precise sensory ability in the limb itself, as well as the integration of synthetic sensory data and nervous system. Prosthetics could also one day provide amputees with extrasensory capabilities, such as: optics, chemical sensitivity, echolocation, infrared etc. Could such a reality, many ask, invert public opinion and preference regarding amputation, making amputated limbs a desirable characteristic? And what if, at such point, people without illness or injury desire to amputate their own limbs? 

Indeed, as many futurists and technologists have pointed out, humans may likely undergo a kind of gradual "cyborgization." The practice of integrating synthetic body parts in order to repair or augment existing functionality may eventually result in a kind of human-machine hybrid. And given recent precedents, it's clear that a gateway exists to this kind of transformation for people with disabilities. What's less clear, however, is how so-called "normal" functioning humans can opt in as well. Olson elaborates:

What does Oscar Pistorius’s success at the Olympics mean for the future of cybernetics?

Futurist bloggers and social media figures confidently herald Milo and Patrick's decisions as harbingers of times to come; where prosthetic technology becomes so exceedingly superior, functionally and aesthetically, that even those without injury or disability would electively amputate their limbs. Those outside futurism have formed similar abstractions. Medical ethicist Dr. Bennette Foddy of Oxford University, for instance, argues "Now as the technology improves, we will eventually get to the point where the prosthetics function better than people's original hands, and we may see people with perfectly healthy, functional hands, wishing to have a cybernetic replacement." Many in the field of bioethics, however, responded to news of Milo and Patrick with concern. Due to the permanent nature, and the chance that a more organic means of improvement may later be found, many believe that amputation should only be offered in dire circumstance. Other patients, however, are on their way to elective amputation, and as the technology improves, we can expect such an operation to become more popular.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that doctors are not allowed to amputate a perfectly functional biological limb — what would be considered an act of unwarranted mutilation. But as Olson points out, the day is coming when an artificial limb will surpass a biological one in terms of its performance and capacity, leading some to wonder if the restrictions will eventually have to be relaxed.

Be sure to read Nikki Olson's entire article for further insights, including an assessment of transhumanists and their potential willingness to engage in this practice.

Top image via Startribune. Inset image via IEET.